Few knew what to expect when the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights hooked up in an unlikely Stanley Cup final meeting that started with Game 1 on Monday in Las Vegas. Each team had been sitting idle for several days ahead of the series opener, which added a layer to the uncertainty.
Either team could have taken Game 1, but it was the Knights who prevailed in a wild affair that featured four lead changes, the most ever in a Stanley Cup final contest. Vegas’ fourth line accounted for half of its offensive output in a 6-4 win over Washington at T-Mobile Arena on Monday.
Tomas Nosek scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal midway through the third period, and the Caps missed a glorious chance to even up the score one more time late in the third, only to have Tom Wilson’s pass glance harmlessly off the heel of Lars Eller’s stick in the final minute. Nosek added an empty-netter to ice the win in the final ticks.
Caps winger Devante Smith-Pelly took control of the puck high in the Washington zone and attempted to chip it out, but Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore adroitly kept the puck in at the left point. Theodore then worked his way down the left wing wall and made a perfect feed to Nosek at the back door. The big winger cranked a one-timer in to make it a 5-4 game with 10:16 remaining.
“I expected it right away,” says Nosek of Theodore’s precision pass. “That’s why I moved from the goalie’s eyes to the back door, because I knew he was going go pass it to me.”
The game was even at 2-2 after the first and 3-3 after the second as the two unfamiliar foes felt each other out and did their best to deal with the oddity of several days away from game action. The Caps grabbed a 4-3 lead on a Wilson goal early in the third, but were unable to hold it, as the Golden Knights got three third-period goals, all of them from their fourth line.
Ryan Reaves tied the game at 4-4 about a minute and a half after Wilson gave Washington the lead. The Reaves goal was not without controversy; he crosschecked Caps defenseman John Carlson to the ice, then got the puck and went top shelf with it.
“It definitely could have been called,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen on the non-call on Reaves, “based on the first penalty they called in the game. That one is pretty similar, and it leads right to a goal – in the slot. So if you’re comparing apples to apples, I think that one is even worse.
“But we’re not going to blame that one on the officiating tonight. We need to play better. It’s the finals. Traditionally, they don’t call very much, so we’re going to have to battle through that stuff.”
Although they looked a little jittery in the early going, the Capitals survived the early push they knew to expect from the Knights. Vegas recorded the first five shots on net of the night, and the Caps weren’t able to muster their first until the sixth minute of the game.
Washington’s Andre Burakovsky went to the box for boarding at 5:53 of the first, and the Golden Knights took advantage of the resulting extra-man opportunity to score the game’s first goal. Colin Miller fired a shot through a screen from the left point, beating Caps goalie Braden Holtby low on the glove side for a 1-0 Vegas lead at 7:15 of the first.
The Capitals were held without a shot on net for just over eight minutes, and they weren’t able to establish any sort of lingering presence in the Vegas end of the ice until late in the first frame. But once they did, they were able to light a couple of lamps.
Burakovsky carried out of the left wing corner and put the puck to the left point for Michal Kempny, who let go of a shot from there. Parked in the slot, Brett Connolly got a piece of the shot, tipping it behind Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at 14:41 of the first frame.
A mere 42 seconds later, the Caps grabbed the lead. Jakub Vrana put the puck behind the Vegas net for T.J. Oshie, who curled around the back of the cage in an apparent wraparound bid. Theodore hampered Oshie with his stick, but the puck rolled to Nicklas Backstrom in the slot. Backstrom lifted a backhander over Fleury’s left pad for a 2-1 Washington lead at 15:23.
Washington would not be able to take that lead to the first intermission. William Karlsson tied the game on a pinball shot late in the period, banking the puck into the net off Holtby’s left shoulder.
Vegas had a strong start to the second period as well, and Reilly Smith lifted the home team back on top, giving the Knights a 3-2 lead at 3:21 of the second.
Five minutes later, the Caps drew even when John Carlson took a feed from Oshie and put some mustard on a backhand shot from the slot, tying the game at 3-3 at 8:29 of the third.
Wilson’s goal enabled the Caps to grab a lead in the third, but Vegas has been resilient in responding to opposition tallies in these playoffs, and Reaves’ goal was another example of that. Game 1 was certainly winnable for Washington, but the Caps were as loose and sloppy as they’ve been in any of their 20 playoff games this spring, and that’s no formula for success against Vegas.
“I think as a whole, we can play a lot better which is exciting to me,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I know we have a whole another level in our game. It’s got to be our whole roster. [The Knights] got contributions from the bottom part of their roster in terms of their third and fourth lines and their big line was good; they had a response there. So I expect us to have a response. We’ve got more to our game.”
The officials should have more to their game, too. Blatant calls were overlooked on both sides from the first period to the end of the contest. The non-call on the Reaves goal was literally a game changer. Wilson was given a minor for interference on a late hit on Jonathan Marchessault early in the third, and the officials also assessed a cross-checking call on David Perron on the same sequence, leading to a couple of minutes of four-on-four hockey. But Perron was the sixth skater on the ice for Vegas at that point; he left the bench to deliver that crosscheck to Caps captain Alex Ovechkin.
There were two power plays in the game, one on each side. Burakovsky’s boarding minor in the first was less egregious that Reaves’ whack on Carlson, and the Caps’ lone power play came on one of a few times in which Vegas had too many skaters on the sheet. Hacks and whacks that were called earlier in the playoffs were ignored. This game and this stage deserve better.
For the spectators in a rocking and raucous T-Mobile Arena on Monday, the series opener was wildly entertaining with its lead changes and its chippiness. But for the coaches, these are the games that lead to hair loss or gray locks.
“Well, as long as you win at the end of the night,” says Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. “But I’m sure Barry is not too happy with that game, and I’m not overly happy with that game, but the bottom line is we won the game so we’re happier than they are. It was a bit of a sloppy game and two teams feeling each other out, and I’m sure the next game will be a better game.”